Habits – The Power to Be a Better You
Our days are full of routines or things we do without thinking. It is estimated that around 50% of the things we do are automatic and these habits usually make our lives easier.
Most of the time we are not even aware of our habits and even if we are they can be difficult to change. This is because they have been repeated over and over again and are a part of our daily life. Good habits are the foundation of a healthy lifestyle, whereas bad habits can stand in the way of our body and life goals.
What are habits?
Habits are the actions, behaviours or routines that you do repeatedly. They are often automatic and can make our lives easier.
Habits are formed when actions or behaviours are repeated and become a routine. The reason for this routine is a cue, i.e. the thing that triggers the action or behaviour. For example, eating sugary snacks in the afternoon could be triggered by a time, feeling (e.g. boredom) or place (e.g. your sofa).
This is then reinforced by a reward. When we get a positive feeling after something, we are more likely to do it again. The reward is usually short term and can be anything from satisfying a craving to avoiding something you don’t want to do. As it is repeated over and over again, this habit will become part of your daily routine. Habits can also be situation specific, i.e. you don’t do them every day, only in certain situations. For example, you may bite your nails when you are stressed.
Why are habits important?
Habits help us in a number of ways. Imagine if you had to think about every single thing you did? Habits allow us to multitask, as when we do something automatically, we can focus on something else. For example, we may not remember part of our journey to work as we are thinking about something else.
By freeing up your mind, habits can save your willpower and energy. When something becomes a habit (e.g. your exercise routine) it is easier to motivate yourself to do it.
Furthermore, your health, fitness and mind are connected, so a good habit in one area will help you in another. As good habits are repeated good actions or behaviours, they will help you perform better and make your goals easier to reach. For example, the habit of getting up and working early, will give you more time to do your work.
Build better habits
To improve our habits we need to break or change the cycle of routine → cue → reward. Follow these five steps to change your habits to improve your diet, exercise and life.
STEP ONE: Set a goal and write it down.
Choose a goal about something you really want to improve or achieve. Try to be specific.
For example, the goal: ‘I will lose 1kg in 1 month’ is better than ‘I will lose weight’ as you can measure your success more easily.
Write down the goal and commit to it. Research shows that you are more likely to succeed when you write down your goals.
Click here to learn how to set goals.
STEP TWO: Identify bad habits to change and good habits to create.
List the good habits that you need to create to reach your goal. Choose the one that you can start as soon as possible, and that is going to have the quickest and most significant impact on reaching your goal.
Using the goal above, ‘I will lose 1kg in 1 month’, here are some examples of good habits you could create
- Do a 30 minute exercise routine every day
- Eat less snacks and eat healthier snacks
- Drink water instead of sugary drinks
Now, list the bad habits that may make it harder to create your good habit. Again, choose one bad habit that will make the biggest difference in creating your good habit and reaching your goal.
For example, if you want to create the good habit: ‘Do a 30-minute exercise routine every day’, here are some bad habits that may make this difficult (specific examples are given in italics):
- Eating junk food which makes you feel lethargic (e.g. eating a high sugar food mid-afternoon)
- Procrastinating instead of starting exercise (e.g. watching TV in the afternoon instead of exercising)
- Not warming up or stretching before exercise
Keep the two lists. When you make good progress on a habit, choose another to improve. It’s best to choose one at a time, so you can focus and save your willpower.
STEP THREE: Think about how you will reward yourself
Choose a reward to help you reinforce the new action and habit. The reward can be anything that you will enjoy but try to avoid rewarding yourself with things that will go against your goal (e.g. unhealthy food after exercising if you are trying to lose weight). Also, make sure you only reward yourself AFTER you actually do the habit.
For example, if your new habit is to exercise, the reward could be making and listening to a playlist of your favourite songs. Another reward could be taking a picture of yourself after you exercise, when you feel and look in good shape.
Think about how the current rewards for your bad habits make you feel. You may feel a short-term positive feeling (e.g. the taste of the food) or a short-term escape from a negative feeling (e.g. less boredom). However, these rarely satisfy us for long. You will likely find that the reward for your good habit will be more satisfying in the long term. You will find that making positive changes to your diet, exercise or lifestyle will make you feel healthier and fitter, which is a reward in itself.
STEP FOUR: Find the triggers for your habits
Now you need to work out the triggers that will help or impede your progress. Answer these five questions about your habit triggers:
- A specific time of day – When do you do the habit?
- A specific place – Where do you do it?
- An emotion – Do you do the habit because you feel a certain way?
- Other people – Do you do it because you are with (or without) other people?
- A preceding action or event – Do you do it after something happens?
Try to be as specific as possible. If you aren’t completely sure now, wait until the next time you perform the bad habit and write down the answers straight away. Some of the five triggers might not be relevant to you, so you may not have an answer for every category.
Using the bad habit above of: ‘eating a high sugar food mid-afternoon’, here are some examples:
- Time – you snack every day at around 3pm
- Place – you snack when you’re relaxing on the sofa
- Emotion – you snack because you feel bored
- Other people – you snack because others snack
- A preceding action or event – you snack when you are taking a break from working
Keep this information, as you will need it to make your plan (step five).
STEP FIVE: Use the habit triggers to make a plan
Write down a way that you can overcome each of your habit triggers (from step four), using ‘I will…’ statements. Here are some examples, using the bad habit above of: ‘eating a high sugar food mid-afternoon’.
- Time – I will eat a healthy lunch and drink lots of water. You may find that you don’t feel as hungry at 3pm. Prepare a healthy snack in case you do.
- Place – I will set an alarm for 3pm (or a bit before you usually do the bad habit), to get up and be active* – don’t stay in the place the bad habit usually occurs. The break and physical activity should renew your energy
- Emotion – I will take a break at 3pm and do something active so I am not bored
- Other people – I will bring my own healthy snack to snack with my friends. I will tell my friends that I am trying to eat more healthily.
- A preceding action or event – I will have a healthy snack and be active for 5 minutes as soon as I take a break from work.
Create a plan and be prepared. It is important to remember that even if you feel good or ready now, you may not have the willpower or drive when you actually try to change the habit.
Check out our other life posts